Interpreting Consumer Mythology: a Literary Criticism Approach to Odyssey Informant Stories

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT - This paper proposes that researchers explore deep meanings of consumers' stories about products by applying structural analytic methods from literary criticism. Recent analytical methods by Scholes (1985) are described and applied to interpret seven stories told by informants during the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Key themes that emerged in the analyses concern buyer-seller status relationships, metaphoric properties between consumers and products, and shared sacred vs. private sacred possessions.
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey F. Durgee (1988) ,"Interpreting Consumer Mythology: a Literary Criticism Approach to Odyssey Informant Stories", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 531-536.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 531-536

INTERPRETING CONSUMER MYTHOLOGY: A LITERARY CRITICISM APPROACH TO ODYSSEY INFORMANT STORIES

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

ABSTRACT -

This paper proposes that researchers explore deep meanings of consumers' stories about products by applying structural analytic methods from literary criticism. Recent analytical methods by Scholes (1985) are described and applied to interpret seven stories told by informants during the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey. Key themes that emerged in the analyses concern buyer-seller status relationships, metaphoric properties between consumers and products, and shared sacred vs. private sacred possessions.

INTRODUCTION

In 1981 Sidney Levy published an article in which he described how to apply structuralism, an analytic method borrowed from literary criticism, philosophy and anthropology to interpret folktales, anecdotes and stories consumers tell about using products. This was a seminal article in the study of consumption symbolism having had a direct influence on many subsequent articles (e.g., Hirschman, 1986; McCracken, 1986).

In the article, Levy places consumer stories and anecdotes in the general category of projective data, and analyzes a set of them by showing how they "structure" or interrelate user characteristics, settings and product attributes. Stories about food and eating habits, for example, tend to associate middle class people with conventional settings and salty foods such as french fries, pot roast, and green beans. The analysis ends in a large diagram showing how consumers might cognitively structure dozens of personality and demographic characteristics, food qualities, and individual food types.

Like many articles on structuralism (e.g., Ray, 1984 and Harari, 1979), however, it does not provide clear direction on how to get from story to structural interpretation. While there is extensive coverage of results, there are few examples of food and eating stories per se and how they were "deconstructed" to yield results in the diagrams. Second, the results focus mainly on attributes and objects in the stories rather than sequences of events, on discourse rather than story line. A story's appeal lies mainly in the sequence of events (what happens next?), so this should be addressed in the analysis as well. Finally, the article draws methods mainly from structural anthropology. A more balanced view might also draw on structural methods from literary criticism (e.g., Scholes, 1982).

The purpose of this paper is to apply recent advances in structuralism by literary critics and philosophers including Scholes (1985), Hawkes (1972) and Sturrock (1979) to understanding stories told by respondents during the 1986 Consumer Behavior Odyssey. While the main analytic tool is structuralism, other methods from literary critics will be used as well including plot theory analysis (Friedman, 1975) and symbolism (Frye, 1957). The most recent trend in literary criticism is not based on one particular method versus another but rather on methodological pluralism (Friedman, 1975) to get at the "total meaning of a work," so our approach will be roughly the same. Output will consist of issues, thoughts and hypotheses about consumer behavior, including making, selling, buying, using, losing and finding consumer goods. The Levy article was mainly about food and how meanings are structured around American food and eating habits. This article is not about one particular subject but rather attempts to show how consumer stories can be analyzed to yield novel hypotheses about a wide range of consumption issues.

The next section describes what a "story" is and how stories are valuable in consumer research. The following section describes the structuralist method, and applied it to explain a story about cocaine dealing. The main section of the report then analyzes 7 stories, drawing major themes from each as well as what the story tellers and stories "say" about these themes.

STORIES

There are two types of responses given by respondents in qualitative research: perceptions and stories. Perceptions include all generalizations about past experiences, for example, "those cars are too fast." Stories, in contrast, describe concrete individual experiences. People tell stories to each other in order to share each other's experiences (vicarious enjoyment) as well as enjoy the suspense awaiting the outcome or climax (Benjamin, 1969). It is often said that sex is the recreation of the poor, yet storytelling is a day-to-day recreation for everyone. Shared folklore and myths promote group solidarity (Levy, 1981), and provide status and self-esteem to storytellers.

Stories are useful to consumer researchers for several reasons. First, emotionality of a product is most intense in stories. No one has a story about wearing a diamond yet everyone has a story about the night they became engaged. Second, stories characterize the "group aesthetic" of the people they are told among. For example, during the Odyssey, it was noted that stories among downscale respondents had more overt-emotional content whereas stories told among upscale respondents more often dealt with themes of individuals overcoming, through intelligence, perception and hard work, obstacles in careers and daily life (e.g., one woman told a story about "finding herself' in her career as an interior designer). Hirschman (1983) notes the difficulty in doing marketing research for creative products (movies, plays) yet novelists have borrowed plots and characterizations from their "market"--every day people-for years. Third, stories are unsurpassed for their expressive content. They convey not only what happened but also the associated emotionality of the events as well as the storyteller's motives and, structuralist anthropologists argue, the unconscious mental organization of entire cultures.

As evidence of the expressive power of stories, consider the consumer comment "oatmeal is good, reliable food" as opposed to this story by an older black woman interviewed during the Odyssey:

(As a young woman): She used to cry all of the time when she was married, and her stomach would be tied up in knots when her husband would come home. She used to pray and pray and finally God told her that she should leave her husband and take her 4 children and start a new life. For 6 months she got ready to leave. She prayed to the Lord the whole time. Her husband didn't know what she was planning. She would wash towels and sheets and put them away in boxes. She would tuck away a dollar here and there. At the end of 6 months, she called up her brother on a Saturday and told him to come over and bring some friends and help her move the boxes. He came and by Sunday morning she was cooking oatmeal on a hot plate plugged into an outlet in the hallway in her new apartment.

The contrast here between the trauma and unsettledness of this woman's married life and sudden move versus the reliable homeyness of cooking oatmeal makes these properties of oatmeal all the more vivid.

STORY DEFINITION

For the purpose of this report, a "story" is defined here as a verbal representation of some sequence of events which include:

- a protagonist (person or group of people)

- a beginning, middle and end

- obstacle(s) the protagonist(s) must deal with

- implausible/unusual events (vs. "scripted" events (Abelson, 1976) which are largely routinized, "automatic" daily behaviors (Benjamin, 1969)).

- memorable, repeatable events

- some moral or point of counsel (Benjamin, 1969)

- some degree of uncertainty or suspense (Green, 1965).

As an example, below is a story of a palm reader at a swap meet visited by the Odyssey:

Palm reading has been barred because a con artist once told a female client to bury her money in a bag at some location which she did--and she was promptly robbed.

This story, told by a swap meet official, involves a protagonist, a woman, who is duped by a con artist. The sequence of events--read palm, bury money, steal money-- is unusual and has some intrigue and suspense in addition to carrying a clear moral: don't trust palm readers. If consumer stories could be classified in terms of "genres," this might be classified as an "I've-been-at-this-business-a-long-time-and-I-know-who-not-to-trust" story.

ODYSSEY STORIES

The Odyssey interviewing team interviewed over 300 people in urban, suburban and rural settings from Los Angeles to New York City during the summer of 1986. Interviews ranged from 3 hours to casual conversations of 10 to 15 minutes. Topics were largely unstructured, so stories and comments emerged spontaneously, respondents describing themselves, their lives, possessions and anything they were thinking of.

Output is in fieldnote format, and includes over 1000 pages of notes. This output was examined for the type of stories specified above, and over 300 stories were identified. The stories were classified in terms of relevance to production exchange, and consumption issues, and the following breakout emerged:

FIGURE 1

FREQUENCIES OF TYPES OF STORIES TOLD BY ODYSSEY INFORMANTS

Interestingly, there were many stories of product quality (largely by producers), selling, consuming, and losing and finding products. On the other hand, there were comparatively few stories of producing or making products, buying them, or losing and never finding them. Regarding production, perhaps Marx (1961) was correct in saying that production has lost its sense of involvement and fulfillment insofar as there were few stories of interesting things that happened during the making of products, even though many producers and craftsmen were interviewed. Similarly, buying or shopping yielded few interesting stories, suggesting the unpleasant, chore-like activity that shopping has become. That people have few stories about losing and not finding items is not surprising. Finding a lost item is a pleasant experience and provides a climax to a good story. Losing an item is often painful and there is no ending to the story per se.

The next section describes Scholes method of interpreting stories and shows how this method was applied to interpreting Odyssey stories.

A STRUCTURAL METHOD FOR INTERPRETING STORIES

Consumption symbolism has received a lot of attention lately by consumer researchers (Hirschman, 1986; Holbrook & Hirschman, 1982; Belk, 1985). As this field's name suggests, the focus in these researchers' studies is on products and consumption behaviors and what they mean symbolically to consumers.

Structural anthropologists, philosophers, and literary critics, in contrast focus not on elements but rather on relationships between them. These relationships and how they structure key elements is their main concern.

Relationships, for example, include relationships of difference, similarity, contiguity, causality, habitual or cultural association (e.g., "Apple pie" always goes with "motherhood"), and order (e.g., rank order, order of notes in songs, status ordering, etc.). Thus, in interpreting consumer stories Levy suggests that researchers break them into key elements or oppositions, and "structure" them in terms of underlying relationships. In stories about foods, for example, bitter, herbal foods would be contrasted with sweet foods based on an underlying social class dimension, the former more often associated with upscale consumers, the latter, with downscale consumers.

Levy's description of the deconstruction process involves leaving a story essentially "as is" and looking for underlying themes or oppositions. This is perfectly adequate although it often makes it difficult to identify these themes. Recently, Scholes (1985) suggests an alternate method which involves manipulation of the story, and makes it easier to spot interesting relationships, binary oppositions, and themes.

In a nutshell, Scholes suggests three steps in interpreting a story:

1) "Reading," 2) "Interpreting," and 3) "Criticizing." In the reading phase the reader's goal is a full understanding of the scene, of what the writer is trying to describe. Important issues here are the key words and the flow of events. Another issue is how the story might be paraphrased. In brief, how do we construct the scene from the words on the page?

The move to step 2, interpreting, is accomplished by manipulating or altering the story and its elements. Questions here might include: How would the protagonist react in a different situation? What "happens" after the story, for example, what happens to the characters in the movie, 'The Graduate," Benjamin, Elaine and Mrs. Robinson after the climatic wedding scene? What happens if characters, relationships and symbols are replaced by other characters, relationships and symbols? How do these changes affect themes and meanings inherent in the text? Typically, imagining these types of variations quickly suggests key themes and oppositions.

To consider an example of step 2, consider the movie "Godfather II." This movie begins with scenes of long lines of immigrants at Ellis Island, waiting to enter a country which represents hope and opportunity. Subsequent scenes show mafia gunfights, senators in whorehouses, thugs and politicians in Batista's Cuba. Had this order been reversed--villains first, immigrants second--the movie's key theme, that of the irony of betrayed hopes and dreams, would not have been as powerful (Scholes, 1982).

The third step, "criticism" involves comparing the story with subjective standards of "taste," that is, is the story and its associated theme "good" or "bad"? Hemingway stories, for example, are typically "masculine" stories, and might be criticized on this basis from a feminist "taste" perspective. Taste, however, does not concern us here, so we focus instead on analyzing consumer stories in terms of steps 1 and 2, reading and interpreting.

Let us consider, as an example, a story told by an informant in a shelter for the homeless in Chicago. The story he tells is of a young (early 20's) black male who often stays in the shelter:

He is doing better from his last injury. He sells cocaine, and cuts it with baking soda. Periodically he is caught at this and gets beaten up. Most recently he had several ribs broken.

Key words here--that is, words which are necessary to describe the scene or situation-- are "he" (protagonist), "cocaine," "cuts it," "baking soda," and "had ribs broken."

If we replace "had ribs broken" with "had both legs broken," the story begins to suggest interesting themes of equivalencies and product quality. This story is essentially one which compares downscale, black inner city codes with the middle class white codes. Here, cutting cocaine is to getting ribs broken as an airline flight slowdown is to listening to irate air travellers. "Poor product quality" is usually defined in terms of "not meeting expectations," so it is interesting to consider it in teams of feeling-justified-in-harming-sellers. How much harm is too much? If poor service has become endemic in the U.S., does complaining make one feel as if the exchange is more fair? If someone receives poor service, what type of retaliation, if any, is justified? The matter of fact tone of the respondent suggests that the change between poor cocaine and getting ribs broken is fair and equitable.

The next section recounts and analyzes additional consumer stories from the Odyssey and hypotheses and suggests directions for further research.

ANALYSES OF ODYSSEY STORIES

Below are 7 stories from the Odyssey. Each story is presented along with a brief analysis of its key structural components and key themes.

1. Story: "Popcorn on Concorde"

(Indiana popcorn store. Wife tells story of husband/owner's popcorn:)

"His popcorn even flew on the Concorde."

Analysis: Here, popcorn bears the same relationship to the Concorde as Tang did to the space shuttle. This suggests an interesting comparison between the space shuttle and the Concorde. The Concorde does not fly as high nor as fast, is not based on technology that is as exotic, is not as patriotic and can be flown on by anyone with 900 dollars. Yet the Concorde seems to have replaced the shuttle as a motivational symbol. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" as opposed to science and lunar launches.

2. Story: "Money for Baby"

(An older woman who built up a large swap meet business tells a story of one of her young male employees:)

"The young man asked to leave work early because he had to go to an adoption agency which might have a baby for he and his wife to adopt. They had been waiting a long time for a baby. I said he could leave at 3 pm and that he should pray for it to work out. I also told him that he could promise in his prayers that if it worked out, I would make a donation to St. Jude. At 4 pm he came back with the good news, so I made the donation."

Analysis: Key elements in the story include the baby, the money, the woman and the young man. An interesting relationship here involves the ordering of baby and money. Note that the woman makes the money conditional upon the receipt of the baby. A more sympathetic approach would involve her giving the money first in hopes of getting the baby. In effect, she hedges her bets. Also, she puts herself in a much higher, more prominent position in the story and the exchange. Her contribution becomes the climax of the story. As a buyer who pays after delivery, she exercises power in the interchange, just as she exercises power in ha swap meet position. What are the status implications of ordering of behaviors in buyer-seller exchanges? Under what conditions do they change?

3. Story: "57 Chevies"

Said of an older married couple who were automobile buffs:

"They met when they both had '57 Chevies and they took this to be a sign that they were meant for each other."

Analysis: Elements here include the two people and the Chevies. The couple note that the car is a "sign" for them although in a strict semiological sense it is a "symbol" insofar as it shares common properties with them. They are an eccentric couple, and the car is a rather unusual item to collect among car owners. They wanted--and have hadCa long, dependable relationship and marriage, and the car is one of the most dependable ever made. Marriage was a major event in their lives, and the car was a breakthrough for Chevrolet its first V8 powered car. Do deeply valued possessions condition expectations regarding life?

4. Story: n Stew"

Older (late 60's) male informant:

"When I was a child we were always able to get by, but sometimes times were tough. Once (in great depression) I remember my father spreading some chicken feed around in the chicken coop. When it was filled with sparrows, he killed the sparrows. We had stew for dinner."

Analysis: Again, there is a symbolic relationship between elements. Also, an interesting causal relationship, a sort of "consumption chain." Here, during the depression, a weak economic system consumes a weak family which consumes a weak animal. Note that the father did not shoot a bull moose for dinner. Dichter (1964) suggests that men eat steak in order to symbolically partake of the steer's masculinity and power. The question that is raised, therefore, is do people consume items that symbolically reflect their motivations and situation?

5. Story: "High School Reunion"

Mid-aged woman at weight reducing farm:

"I weighed 300 lbs. in high school. I'd eat 4 hoagies a day. I lost the weight (176 pounds) over a period of six months. I went to my high school reunion and nobody recognized me. My hair color got lighter and my complexion cleared up. At the reunion, guys would ask me to dance but I turned them down. I thought, 'You wouldn't ask me on a date, so I'm not going to dance with you now."

Analysis: This story sounds uplifting although it bears many similarities to a classical revenge tragedy such as "Hamlet." The woman is harmed by being overweight, then harmed by being rejected in high school. She returns to her high school classmates, and snubs young men who rejected her years before. In a revenge tragedy, the protagonist is done in in the end, so we might anticipate that she will "pay" for her excessive behavior at the reunion. Thus, like many people with weight problems, she might be undone by regaining all the weight. Usually overconsumption leads to some negative consequence. Here, it is the consequence.

6. Story: "Letters In the Drawer"

Story told by woman swap market antique dealer

"Once I found under a dresser drawer some letters from a woman's lover. I figured the timing of the love letters and came to realize that the younger son was fathered by the lover rather than the husband. He was the product of his mother's infidelity. This SOD was a driven man, a successful lawyer. I realized that he was driven to be successful in order to make himself acceptable to the husband. I figured it was important to let him know about the letters. I went to his house one evening and told him. He was saddened, but thanked me. He was relieved to know why there was always so much tension in his family."

Analysis: An important theme in the Odyssey was the distinction between "sacred" and "profane" items. What makes this story interesting is the sacred nature of the drawer and drawers in general. Obviously, there are different types of sacredness and sacred locations in a house. A mantle in a living room, with its pictures of ancestors and other family members is "sacred" - yet a drawer containing love letters in this case is highly sacred. The former represents a shared sacredness, the latter, a very personal, private sacredness.

7. Story: "Earthquake Pictures of Parents"

"Once (a swap meet vendor) was setting up a display for a show. The display included a fireplace and she wanted some pictures to hang above it. She found a picture in a booth near hers that seemed to match one she already had. One was a picture of a boy and the other was a picture of a girl. Even though they were not exactly the same time period as the rest of the display, there was something right about them together. They were both black and white photographs which had been painted over in oils. Later in the show, a man walked by, looked at the photos and started crying. He said that they were pictures of his grandparents and the pictures had been lost in the San Francisco earthquake. She felt as if these pictures already belonged to him, so she sold them to him at her cost."

Analysis: Again, there is a theme here of unusual equivalencies. The pictures have incalculable value to the man yet the vendor does not give them to him, she sells them, albeit "at her cost." We assume, by "abduction," that she is rather mercenary. This is also an interesting story of death sanctioning the value of items, in this case, pictures. Death is a common theme in stories insofar as it gives the storyteller his or her ultimate authority.

SUMMARY

Literary criticism is popular because it enables readers to get more enjoyment from literary works and because it allows them to be creative insofar as they can actively construct interpretations of writers' works. However, a third purpose of criticismCto get at the total Meaning of a work-suggests a key value to consumer researchers, namely, that it might be possible to apply critical methods to interpret stories consumers tell about using products. The critical method proposed here (by Scholes, 1985), suggests that stories be analyzed by laying out key story components (characters, events) and then manipulating or changing them in order to identify underlying themes.

An analysis of seven Odyssey stories suggests the following themes and hypotheses:

A story about the Concorde suggests that this plane has become a new "supra" aspirational symbol and that materialism and business values have replaced technological values of the 1970's.

A story about donating money to the church suggests that the buy now-pay later sequence (as opposed to paying first and then receiving the goods) confers higher status on buyers.

A story about 1957 Chevrolets suggests that possessions that are deeply valued shape users expectations of life in general.

A story about a Depression period family eating sparrows suggests that people consume products that bear metaphoric similarities to themselves (similar to Dichter's (1964) hypothesis that real men eat real beef).

A story about a young woman who loses a lot of weight and returns to her high school reunion to snub young men who snubbed her earlier suggests that, as in any classical revenge tragedy, she will be "done in" in the end, that overconsumption, once the cause of her problems returns, this time, as an inevitable consequence.

A story about love letters in a drawer suggests a conceptual difference between "shared sacred" items (e.g., family heirlooms) and "personal sacred" items.

A story about family pictures from the San Francisco earthquake stresses deep meanings of life and death in deeply valued possessions.

This exercise points to the heuristic value of literary analytic methods. An overall theme which emerged in this research, for example, is that of consumption affecting consumption: ownership of '57 Chevies affecting selection of mate, depression "consumption" of poor families affecting family consumption of food types, over consumption of food affecting underconsumption of dating partners, and so on. This general theme or any of the specific story subthemes suggest interesting areas for further research.

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